6 December 2022

Myths vital to understanding ‘Climate Change’

Australia has felt the effects of climate change in recent years. Picture: iStock

By Richard Gijsbers

23 February 2022

Distinguished Christian climate scientist Mike Hulme argues we should see “Climate Change” as an opportunity to be grasped, rather than just a problem to be solved. Here Richard Gijsbers reflects on Hulme’s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change. 

In Mike Hulme’s view “Climate Change” is now a social phenomenon. Having worked its way into our conversations, thinking, religions, community standards, and identity, it influences the cars we buy, the stories we tell our children, and our worship at church on Sundays. It is far more than just a technical issue – to him, that is “climate change” – and dealing with it is not just a series of binary choices between simple, opposing right and wrong options. 

Currently professor of human geography at Cambridge University, Hulme is a climate scientist who is also a Christian. Throughout this work he argues that issues around climate change are intractable, complex, and nuanced, and that the solution is not just a matter of pumping less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or persuading others to do so.  

The book is for a secular audience, and Hulme makes little attempt to engage with Christian theological writers on the subject. However, he does unashamedly draw on his Christianity to make his case. 

Hulme takes the debate away from doomsday scenarios, targets, and deadlines, and presents the landscape of this phenomenon, inviting us to decide where we will go within that landscape on our own journeys. But in no way does he minimise the enormity of the changes and threats we are facing, or the values and approaches, hopes and expectations we bring to the topic. 

Read more: Christians together lobby for climate justice

Hulme starts by listing some ways “Climate Change” has been captured in the community. He names it as a battleground between different philosophies and practices of science, a justification for the commodification of the atmosphere, an inspiration for a global network of new or reinvigorated social movements, or a threat to ethnic, national, or even global security. 

In each chapter, Hulme highlights a different facet of the debate that makes the issue so difficult. These include: what climate is, the role of science in responding to threats, how we value things, and our different understandings of risk.  

Hulme also notes our penchant for using crises such as climate change as vehicles for pursuing our own ideals for society, nature, and a better world. However laudable our intentions, the collective result is that they have made our responses horrendously complex and messy. 

Illustrating this, Hulme names mitigation strategies that range from a single universal policy target, or a single international carbon market, to tackling worldwide poverty and seeking a single global policy regime. 

It is not that any of these are misguided, although Hulme questions whether any of them can be practically implemented. Rather, Hulme’s concern is that, together they have created a “log jam of gigantic proportions”, which is not only insoluble, but is perhaps even beyond our comprehension. He argues that we need to work within this complexity rather than to strive to conquer it.  

Hulme insists that because of its social nature, we need to go beyond seeing “Climate Change” as a problem, to instead see it as an idea to recognise and use within society. To do this, he suggests we employ myths to help us understand our situation – here “myths” is used to describe those stories that embody the beliefs which underly our approach to everyday or scientific reality. 

He sees myths as attitudes of mind that can be used to mould the idea of “Climate Change” to serve many of our psychological, ethical and spiritual needs, and promote novel outcomes in all sorts of areas such as creative arts, intellectual property, energy production, confronting poverty, and so on. 

Hulme identifies four myths that can be used to help us understand four key psychological instincts: nostalgia, fear, pride, and justice. He describes these as: 

  • Lamenting Eden – recalling a time when we related to nature in a simpler, less ambiguous way and realising we cannot go back.  
  • Presaging the Apocalypse – acknowledging the fear that we are tumbling towards a future catastrophe in which the threats are not the four Riders, but humanity itself, with our voracious and uncontrollable appetites. 
  • Constructing Babel – driven by a desire for mastery to control (and, in this case, repair), we strive for dominion over nature, but our construction is brittle and fragile.  
  • Celebrating Jubilee – confronted with the injustices and disparities of power that Climate Change is amplifying, we need to call “Time Out” and do some resetting. 

Personally, I would have added a fifth myth: the Suffering Servant. Drawn from Isaiah 40–55, people have lost hope through their own behaviour and are suffering. God intervenes after a time, assuring them they have suffered enough, and is offering to lead them lovingly to a new beginning.

Hulme rejects the outright “problem-solution” mindset of a traditional approach, so employing these myths is not a solution in the usual understanding of the word. Instead, they are frameworks or understandings to help us live with and within the new reality. 

He does not necessarily endorse all that might be assumed from any single one of these myths. Thus, while he categorically rejects doomsday thinking, he recognises that the Apocalyptic myth is a reality in our conversations about “Climate Change”. 

Read more: Why following God’s call might mean care for … insects 

Hulme’s work provides enough information to set my mind running and reflect on this as a different approach to climate change, as a social construct. From this, I can reflect more broadly on who we are (our fears, hopes, and expectations) and how “Climate Change” affects our thinking. 

I spent my professional life struggling with environmental problems and having had to learn to live with them. Think blackberries, feral pest animals, the hole in the ozone layer, the long-term impact of the 1939 bushfires, eucalypt dieback, and dry-land salting. So, I had always thought it optimistic that we thought that we could “solve” climate change per se. Throw in the international dimension and my head really starts to spin. 

Hulme does not ask us to stop striving to behave responsibly on this issue, but he does reject our hopes that these will “solve” the problem and take us back to the day when this was not an issue.  

In among the confusion and muddling – the frustrating international conferences, the scientists and engineers struggling to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, or any other attempts to address the problem of climate change – we should step back and seek to understand the nature of this social phenomenon. Hulme encourages us to do this. 

And so, the book leaves me with thoughts and ideas tumbling through my mind about how we must now live. I would encourage anyone engaged with “Climate Change” to read this book, not to tell them how to think, not for answers, but for questions and the possibility to start thinking afresh and come up with new, innovative and helpful perspectives.  

One challenge for me was to reflect on how my faith in Jesus Christ might make a difference (and, if so, how). That said, and being familiar with the myths he draws on, I can also see beyond them and on to the God who created this untameable nature, and loves and cares for it as much as God loves and cares for me. That is a myth I can live with and draw on. 

Richard Gijsbers is a retired forester with field experience in rural Victoria, Nepal, Cambodia and India, and also in policy and planning in native forests in Victoria. He is an ISCAST Fellow and spends time wondering how his Christian faith can help him understand how humans can relate better with nature.  

Richard will contribute to a series of 10 online conversations, Creation Care in the Climate-Change Century, organised by ISCAST and New Zealand Christians in Science from 3 March to 5 May. More details can be found at bit.ly/convos2022. 

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